Posted by: TomA | 10 August 2008

In Ulaanbaator!

It has been a long time since I last managed to blog anything – back then we were stuck in Baku, Azerbaijain, waiting for our Turkmen visas to come through. We waited a week, were at the Turkmen embassy every day and seemed to make little, if any, progress. On the following Friday, a ferry to Aktau, Kazakhstan, rolled up and having become frustrated at making no progress over the past week, jumped at the chance to get on it and get moving once more.

The ferry wasn’t as gruesome as expected, though hardly luxurious (or clean or safe…). The 20 hour crossing took nearly 48, once we’d sat on the boat in Baku waiting to leave, gone very slowly across the Caspian (apparently due to the fact that the boat has lots of passengers on – lots being about 14 of us) and another morning sat waiting to dock in Kazakhstan.

By the time we’d get off the boat, the guy who processes vehicles at Kazakh customs had gone home, so we spent a night camping in no-mans land, next to the railway line and the ferry terminal with the 5 other cars we’d come across with. It was midday Sunday by the time we finally got through and onto the Kazakh roads…

… which were interesting. Potholes the size of a car were the norm; most driving we did were down dirt tracks beside the pock-marked tarmacs. Progress was painfully slow, barely getting above 30mph at any point and most of it in second gear avoiding holes/bumps. The Kazakh steppe was hot, dusty and not that interesting to look at. We were still hoping to go down to the south east bit of Kazakhstan (having missed Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), but the progress was so slow we eventually decided to head north into Russia to try and make up some time. Our Russian visas expired on the 5th August, and the size of Kazakhstan and the speeds we were managing made that look doubtful. The roof rack took a bit of a pounding, requiring some patching up work by a Kazakh welder. We, and Team F7 F7 who we were still travelling with, got mobbed by the local kids who stocked up on Love Hearts and Scottish pens and paper.

We spent 5 days driving in Kazakhstan; another 5 days in Russia – seeing not a lot of interest until the final day when the scenery changed from flat plains of corn fields into lush mountains. Saw some hideous road accidents, including a rather dead man in the road who’d been hit by a car on his motorbike. We were also chased by a toothless Russian prositute, making our relaxed roadside dinner a touch rushed as we made a quick gettaway.

We managed to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse through the cloud, which parted at just the right time. While it was total in western Mongolia, 1000kn west in Russia it was still fairly impressive and made what had been a rather tedious day far more enjoyable.

While we got out of Russia before our visas expired, we overstayed the registration period (3 days) which caused a bit of hassle at the Russian border trying to leave. It was the 4th of August by the time we got there, having stopped rushing (we’d been up with the sun, around 5am every morning, driving until dark and camping) as the border crossing was closed at the weekend. We bumped into a few other Charity and Mongol ralliers at the border, getting in the queue around 6am. It was 10am by the time we were in, and 4pm by the time we’d got out of the Mongolian side.

As we had the Land Rover, we decided to take the shorter, but more challenging, northern route through Mongolia. Everyone had told us it’d be 10-14 days, which would put my dissertation in serious jeopardy. Mike believed we’d get it done in 5, which looked realistic on the map (only 900 miles) but would depend on how good the roads were and how lost we got.

It didn’t start well, with the first bridge we needed to cross being down, requiring a 50 mile detour around a lake to circumnavigate the river and push on. Our starts got earlier, 3.30am or 4am being the normal rising time, setting up camp about 8 or 9 in the evening after a days driving.

Mongolia turned out to be quite love or hate for me. Some truly spectacular scenery at times offset by some really slow progress on awful tracks and never changing scenery. The dissertation element was never far from my mind either as we got slower and slower.

We had some good Mongolian food on the way – mutton pancakes became a staple of our diet, along with cups of warm milky and buttery tea. Bizarrely, menu roulette also brought me one of my best meals – a mutton stew served with carrot sushi in Ulaangom. Eating was fantastically cheap too, a huge meal for the four of us, with drinks, would come to 3 pounds. Bargain.

The last few days in Mongolia were rather wet, making progress a touch slower still with very muddy roads, though the Land Rover took everything in its stride, never struggling make it over anything we chucked it at.

So we arrived in Ulaanbaator on Saturday night and today dropped the car off with the charity. It gets put into auction at the end of the month – we’re still hoping it’ll raise around $20,000. Tomorrow we’re taking the car to see some of their work and meet the kids. Also trying to sort out flights home, hoping to get one back on Tuesday for less then $1200 which is expensive but not horribly so.

There’s loads I’ve missed out, I’ll try and fill you all in when I get back. But the trip has been fairly problem free, the car ran like a dream, with only the roof rack (which was taken from a skip in the first place) not making it. On a side note, it was rather chilling to watch the BBC World News this afternoon and see footage of the conflict in Georgia, which 3 weeks ago proved one of the highlights of our trip, with fantastically hospitable and friendly people, some beautiful countryside and rather manic drivers. Watching people being carried out dead from Russian airstrikes has put a strange twist on that experience.

There’ll be photos galore when I get back and upload them. In the mean time, if there’s anything you want me to bring you back from Mongolia, let me know!

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Responses

  1. Happy and relieved that you have all arrived safely in Ulaanbaator. Just bring yourself, lots of photos and some tall stories of your adventures.


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